In Sight

Learning a Smart New Tune

A jazz legend discusses music’s important role in education.

Innovative—Jazz icon Herbie Hancock discusses integrating music into lessons on math, engineering and computer science at the U.S. Education Department's headquarters, Washington, D.C., April 26. Photo: John Kingvia Twitter @ Chnkingated.

by Ana Swanson

Before he started playing jazz, composer and musical icon Herbie Hancock was fond of taking things apart and putting them back together. He was perpetually inquisitive and analytical, his tinkering with clocks and watches as a child carrying over to his first explorations of jazz as a teen.

“I would always try to figure out how things work,” Mr. Hancock said. “It was that same instinct that I have that made me learn jazz more quickly . . . It wasn’t a talent for music. It was a talent for being able to analyze things and figure out the details.”

Mr. Hancock later studied electrical engineering at Grinnell College before starting his jazz career full time. He says there is an intrinsic link between playing music and building things, one that he thinks should be exploited in classrooms across the country, where there has been a renewed emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

Mr. Hancock joined a group of educators and researchers on April 26 at the U.S. Education Department’s headquarters to discuss how music can be better integrated into lessons on math, engineering and even computer science, ahead of International Jazz Day.

Mr. Hancock is the chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which has developed, a website that offers teachers resources and apps to use music as a vehicle to teach other academic lessons.

Mr. Hancock said the arts may offer a better vehicle to teach math and science to some students. But he also sees value in touching students’ hearts through music—teaching them empathy, creative expression and the value of working together and keeping an open mind.

“Learning about and adopting the ethics inherent in jazz can make positive changes in our world, a world that now more than ever needs more creativity and innovation, and less anger and hostility to help solve the challenges that we have to help deal with every single day,” Mr. Hancock said.